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The Sculptures of Ancient Cambodia

August 21, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Say Cambodia and certain unforgettable images come to mind: the skulls left in killing fields during the Communist Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in the 1970′s; or these faces, Khmer Rouge victims photographed by their captors in the moments before they were slaughtered. But these are not the only haunting remnants of Cambodia’s past. There are also the great treasures salvaged from the temples of ancient kings. Angkor Watt, for example, built in the 12th century.

From the 6th through the 16th centuries Cambodian sculpture and architecture flourished. In temples and towns great works were created and, especially after 1300, destroyed or reclaimed by the jungle. Surviving pieces are mostly in Phnom Penh or France and are seldom seen by Americans. Now, Cambodia’s national museum has for the first time allowed some of its treasures to leave the country temporarily. Along with objects from the French Gummier Museum, this other Cambodia can be seen until September 28th at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.. Southeast Asian art expert Helen Ibbitson Jessup is the exhibition’s guest curator.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you very much for being with us.

HELEN IBBITSON JESSUP, Guest Curator, National Gallery of Art: Thank you so much for inviting me.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about the Naga, the huge sculpture which greets people when they come to this exhibit.

HELEN IBBITSON JESSUP: Well, it’s a guardian figure. It’s a mythological creature, as you can see from its seven heads. And it has these rather fearsome teeth lining all the heads, and that’s its protective function. It partly resonates with beliefs within Buddhism and Hinduism, but it also is connected with basic myths of origin, where, for example, the Cambodians in one of the versions of the origin of Cambodia believe that a Brahmin prince came from India by sea and married the daughter of the local Naga king and, thus, became the ruler of Cambodia, and the king drank up all the water that covered the land. And the original place–Cambodia–was a very swampy area in the Mekong Delta. So this is geographically believable.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Who made these beautiful works of art?

HELEN IBBITSON JESSUP: We have no idea. Not a single named sculptor either of stone or bronze has come down to us.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s so surprising to me because the figure that’s right to the left as you go on, the Durga, is such a beautiful figure you’d think that the artist would have wanted to take credit for it.

HELEN IBBITSON JESSUP: Well, wouldn’t you, but isn’t she fantastic? She’s my favorite object, I think, in the exhibition. I think probably this is–the anonymity of it is perhaps because these artists were not creating art as art. I mean, Khmer art is ninety something percent religious art. And if they’re created to honor the gods, then the creator, the artist, is unimportant.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us a little bit about this figure, the Durga. I can feel how beautiful she is. I can see how beautiful she is. But how’s the artist achieving this? And she’s so religiously powerful.

HELEN IBBITSON JESSUP: She’s very religiously powerful. She’s a very famous goddess who manages through being infused with the powers of other gods to subdue a really evil and effective and invincible demon, the buffalo demon. And, in fact, in the original, she would have had her hand upraised with a lance in it in the act of killing him, and he would have been under her feet. That’s missing, of course. But that kind of vitality, with that hip-swayed stance, that S curve of the body is something that we always identify with the influences of Indian art. In fact, although we know about Cambodia because of Chinese dynastic records, the visual influences and the influences of religion came from India.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Explain why.

HELEN IBBITSON JESSUP: Well, it was part–it was very strategically located–the original city that we know about called Oc-eo–now in Southern Vietnam, actually, was on the main train route that swung between the Mediterranean via India to China, a sort of maritime version of the silk route.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Where did these pieces come from? Give us a sense of where the sculptures came from.

HELEN IBBITSON JESSUP: From the sanctuaries of temples. And, in fact, most of the central sanctuary images of such grace and majesty would have been seen only by an inner circle of priests and maybe the royal family and high courtiers.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And they wouldn’t have been just looked at, right? They would have been worshiped.

HELEN IBBITSON JESSUP: They would have been worshiped.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And garlands might have been hung around them. In fact, in Cambodia, in the museum these pieces that come from there are worshiped today.

HELEN IBBITSON JESSUP: Oh, yes. There are very often flowers laid as offerings at the feet of certain sculptures. And some of the images are draped with cloth as a sign of respect.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about the Vishnu, which is the very, very large sculpture. Where was it found, and how was it brought out?

HELEN IBBITSON JESSUP: Well, it was found in pieces and probably under a collapsed temple. And sometimes they were half-buried because you know the site of Angkor, in particular, was abandoned in the 15th century. So many of the temples were given over to the invasion of the jungle. But also, since it was customary to bury treasure in the foundation shaft of many temples, vandals probably came and knocked over the sculptures in order to get at the treasure beneath the pedestal of which the central sanctuary image would have been standing. The reclining Vishnu was found in very dramatic circumstances buried under a collapsed temple on a small, artificial island in the middle of the biggest of the huge artificial reservoirs, called Bari, that the Khmer built for ceremonial and irrigation purposes. And he was originally 20 feet long.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What century is he from?

HELEN IBBITSON JESSUP: 11th. And we have an account–firsthand account of him written at the very end of the 13th century by a visiting Chinese diplomat called Jorda Guan. And he writes in this fascinating account of the customs of Cambodia that this–he mistakenly thought it was a reclining Buddha, not a reclining Vishnu in cosmic sleep. And he said, “From his navel comes a continuous stream of water.”

And this refers to what this image means. It’s Vishnu, sleeping between cosmic airs, dreaming the new universe, floating on the back of the Serpent of Eternity, on the primordial ocean. When he wakes, from his navel will come a lotus. And in the lotus will be sitting Brahma, who is the god of creation. And Brahma will recreate the universe. It’s a very beautiful creation myth, of course, but the sculpture must have been extraordinary because its eyes would probably have been precious stones.

And its eyebrows and mustache would probably have been gold. And it would have had a diadem. We can see from certain pigment details on the head that it wore probably a diadem and that probably explains the space between the very gracefully placed hand and the angle of the head in repose. It–I mean, even though it’s badly done, it exudes this incredible spiritual power. I can’t go near it without the hair on the back of my neck rising.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s interesting that in this exhibit there are pieces that are Buddhist and pieces that are Hindu and that these two religions seemed to have coexisted for so long in Cambodia.

HELEN IBBITSON JESSUP: They seem, indeed, to have done so for 1500 years. They arrived together, as far as we can tell, more or less, very early in the first millennium. And there were very ecumenical attitudes. For example, in the magnificent state temple, Temple Mountain of the Bayonne, built in the last quarter of the 12th century, there were chapels to Shiva and Vishnu, even though it was a Buddhist temple.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is there anything in this art which helps us to understand the violence now so many years later which has plagued Cambodia?

HELEN IBBITSON JESSUP: In this freestanding sculpture I think nothing. Even the guardian figures are relatively benign. They exude spiritual grace, I think, and great strength. But in the relief carving there are views there of punishment inflicted on–for example, in the myth of the judgment of the death, those who lived an evil life are punished with horrible tortures, and those who are captured in battle are led in yoked procession, and spikes driven into them all over. And these are some of the tortures the Khmer Rouge used actually.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: These pieces have not been in the United States before. They’ve hardly been seen anywhere in the world. For you, what is the overall significance of this exhibit?

HELEN IBBITSON JESSUP: My goodness. I think to represent one of the most overwhelming and certainly one of history’s longest surviving, continuous traditions of spiritual art. There aren’t many civilizations that have endured and produced great art continuously for more than a thousand years. Very few. The Egyptians, Chinese, Japanese, Indians–our own cultures didn’t–the Greek culture didn’t last a thousand years. By influence it was distributed but not in a continuous production.

It’s really–this is a millennium of great art. It’s really fabulous. And to see the distinctively Cambodian nature of it–and yet its total fitting into the spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism, linking it with this entire world of these two great world religions, with its own national characteristic, but its super human, super religious spiritual quality, it’s really breathtaking. It’s one of the world’s handful of great sculptural traditions, in my opinion.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Helen Ibbitson Jessup, thank you so much for being with us.

HELEN IBBITSON JESSUP: Thank you for having me. It’s such a joy to share it with other people.